Amazon vs Kobo: how much to make the ebook switch?

11 Jun 2014

Amazon has been locked in an epic battle with publishers for control of ebook prices for years now, and the fight has lately taken a nasty turn. Among other things, the retail giant has recently banned pre-orders of Hachette titles, including JK Rowling's next mystery novel, and today it appears that it's done the same to Warner Bros movies, refusing to take pre-orders of The Lego Movie.

This is obviously irritating for publishers -- and authors, as Stephen Colbert's amusingly rage-filled reaction highlights -- and it has implications for readers too. I expound my thoughts on this in next month's PC Pro (I'm sure you can't wait), but the fact that I'm considering switching to a different ebook seller probably gives away the punchline.

Switching is a lot easier than it used to be. When I first started reading ebooks, the Kindle was the obvious first choice, because Amazon had the best devices, the best ebook store, and the best prices.

Today, there's a host of hardware to choose from, and I do most of my reading on my Moto G smartphone. Why carry and charge a second device for my 20-minute commute when I can read on my phone?

Competing ebook stores have also now popped up and filled their digital shelves, and many libraries "stock" ebooks. None of them uses Amazon's proprietary format, so my Kindle is useless here, but I can read them on my phone via free apps.

If I want to switch to a rival bookstore, therefore, the only remaining consideration is price. The specific store I have in mind is Kobo; it's good enough that Sony has recently started using Kobo's book store instead of propping up its own, and the Kobo devices look perfectly decent, should I decide I need a dedicated device again. Plus, it's called Kobo, and that's a great name.

So I've gone through the last ten ebooks I bought, all in the past six months, and looked up what it would have cost me to buy them from Kobo instead of Amazon. (The list has been edited slightly to remove some embarrassments, but feel free to mock my reading tastes and make suggestions below.)

(If the chart's not working, the Google Drive spreadsheet is here.)

You'll notice that I've given prices for only nine books; Christopher Moore's Sacre Blue wasn't available from Kobo. Some of his other books, including the much better Lamb, are however listed, at similar or slightly higher prices than Amazon.

The upshot: my reading would have cost me £25.96 at Amazon or £35.06 at Kobo -- a third more, or nearly £10 -- and I would have missed out on one book altogether.

So what now? Am I willing to pay a £10 premium every six months to vote against Amazon's behaviour? More than likely, I'll end up compromising by shopping around and checking which book store has the best price, which is how I already buy music, TV shows and movies.

If I were still using my Kindle, Amazon's DRM would prevent me from doing this, but my Moto G can happily house both Kobo and Kindle books. Here's hoping Amazon doesn't decide to punish disloyal shoppers such as myself by yanking its Kindle app from smartphones. It may seem unlikely, but so did banning preorders of JK Rowling.

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